Tag Archives: Ellen Schrecker

Falsely Shouting Fire in a Theater: How a Forgotten Labor Struggle Became a National Obsession and Emblem of Our Constitutional Faith

17 Feb

Did you ever wonder where the metaphor of falsely shouting fire in a theater comes from? Several years ago, I was co-writing a book about American political repression with Ellen Schrecker, the brilliant historian of McCarthyism. We came across a fantastic article by University of Texas legal scholar Lucas Powe that made a strong case for where Oliver Wendell Holmes, who came up with the metaphor, might have gotten the idea for it. Ellen followed up Powe’s hypothesis with some extensive sleuthing in the Michigan archives, and what follows is the result of her research and our writing.

Sadly, Ellen and I never finished that book. We did, however, write drafts of a few chapters, some prologues and preludes, and an introduction. What you’re about to read was meant to be a prologue to part 1 of the book, in which we were going to analyze the connection between political repression and national and domestic security (Part 2 was supposed to look at the role of violent and non-violent sanctions in repression; Part 3 would have examined the full array of legal, illegal, and extra-legal modes of repression). Security and repression is a subject I’ve written about at great length elsewhere, and some of the discussion below presumes the theory I have developed in those writings.

In any event, the possible true story of the false shout of fire in a theater is a great story on its own, and Ellen and I both wanted to make sure that it saw the light of the day. So with Ellen’s permission I’m posting our piece here.

For the sake of readability, I have eliminated all of our footnotes. But for those who want to follow up the sources, I’ve added a bibliography here that lists all the sources we cite and consulted in writing this piece, and I’ve posted a pdf of the original text, which contains all the footnotes.

• • • • •

All public facts are to be individualized, all private facts are to be generalized.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, “History

Charles T. Schenck is remembered today less for what he did than for the image he helped inspire:  that of a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.  That image was first offered by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as an illustration of what Schenck did during the First World War, and it has since become a fixture of our discussions about the delicate balance between freedom and security, liberty and order, particularly though not exclusively in times of war.

It’s a pity that we remember the metaphor rather than the man, however, for the gap between what Schenck did and what Holmes said he did is considerable—and instructive.

Schenck was the general secretary of the Socialist Party in Philadelphia during the First World War.  Unlike their sister parties in Western Europe, America’s Socialists firmly opposed the war, even after the United States entered it in April 1917.  That summer, Schenck and his Philadelphia comrades launched a campaign against the draft.  They composed a two-sided leaflet that attacked the draft as unconstitutional and called for people to join the Socialist Party and persuade their representatives in Congress to repeal it.  If the leaflet’s language was strong—“a conscript is little better than a convict…deprived of his liberty and of his right to think and act as a free man”—it was also conventional, couched in a vernacular many would have found familiar.  One side proclaimed “Long Live the Constitution of the United States.” The other urged people to “Assert Your Rights!”

Schenck and his comrades made 15,000 leaflets and mailed most of them to men in Philadelphia who had passed their draft board physicals.  It’s unclear how many actually received the leaflet—hundreds were intercepted by the government—and no one produced evidence of anyone falling under its influence.  Even so, Schenck and four others were arrested and charged with “causing and attempting to cause insubordination…in the military and naval forces of the United States, and to obstruct the recruiting and enlistment services of the United States.”  Two of the defendants—Schenck and another party leader—were found guilty.  Schenck’s case was argued before the Supreme Court in January 1919, and the Court’s unanimous decision to uphold the conviction, written by Holmes, was delivered in March.

Holmes’s opinion was a mere six paragraphs.  But in one sentence he managed to formulate a test for freedom of speech that would endure on the Court in some form until 1968—“[The] question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent”—and in another to draw an illustration of the test that remains burned in the public consciousness to this day: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

With his disdain for socialists and rabble-rousers, Holmes would not have been pleased to see his name posthumously linked to Schenck’s.  But with his equally powerful sense of realism, he undoubtedly would have conceded the truth of Harry Kalven’s observation, in 1988, that “Schenck—and perhaps even Holmes himself—are best remembered for the example of the man ‘falsely shouting fire’ in a crowded theater.”  It was that kind of metaphor: vivid, pungent, and profoundly misleading.

Drawing on nearly forty years of his own scholarship and jurisprudence, Holmes viewed Schenck’s leaflet not as an instance of political speech but as a criminal attempt to inflict harm. In the same way that a person’s shout of fire in a theater would cause a stampede and threaten the audience with death so would Schenck’s leaflet cause insubordination in the military, hamper the war effort, and threaten the United States and its people with destruction.

Holmes knew that words were not always words:  sometimes they ignited fires—and not just the metaphorical kind.  In 1901, as chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, Holmes had upheld the conviction of a man who tried to persuade his servant to set fire to his own home in order to collect on the insurance. Just as that man’s words threatened the safety and well being of his neighbors so did Schenck’s threaten the safety and well being of his, or so Holmes believed.

Whenever the government suppresses opinions or beliefs like Schenck’s, it claims to be acting on behalf of values—national security, law and order, public safety—that are neutral and universal:  neutral because they don’t favor one person or group over another, universal because they are shared by everyone and defined by everyone in the same way.  Whatever a person may believe, whatever her party or profession, race or religion, may be, she will need to be safe and secure in order to live the life she wishes to live.  If she is to be safe and secure, society must be safe and secure:  free of crime and violent threats at home or abroad.  The government must be safe and secure as well, if for no other reason than to provide her and society with the safety and security they need. She and society are like that audience in Holmes’s theater:  whether some are black and others white, some rich and others poor, everyone needs to be and to feel safe and secure in order to enjoy the show.  And anyone who jeopardizes that security, or the ability of the government to provide it, is like the man who falsely shouts fire in the theater. He is a criminal, the enemy of everyone.  Not because he has a controversial view or takes unorthodox actions, but because he makes society—and each person’s pursuits in society—impossible.

But Americans always have been divided—and always have argued—about war and peace, what is or is not in the national interest.  What is security, people have asked?  How do we provide it?  Pay for it?  Who gets how much of it?  The personal differences that are irrelevant in Holmes’s theater—race, class, gender, ethnicity, residence, and so on—have had a great influence in the theater of war and peace. During the First World War, Wall Street thought security lay with supporting the British, German-Americans with supporting the Kaiser, Socialists with supporting the international working class.  And while the presence or absence of fire in Holmes’s theater is a question of objective and settled fact, in politics it is a question of judgment and interpretation.  During the war, Americans could never decide whether or not there was a fire, and if there was, where it was—on the Somme, the Atlantic, in the factories, the family, the draft—and who had set it:  the Kaiser, Wilson, J.P. Morgan, Teddy Roosevelt, the Socialists, the unions, the anarchists.  Without agreement on these questions, it wasn’t clear if Schenck was the shouter, the fire, or the fireman.

There are fires in politics, but where and what they are, who set them, how they can be put out, and who will put them out—these are political questions, the subjects of controversy and debate.  How we answer these questions—and whether they become questions at all (for not all threats and dangers become items of public discussion)—will reflect in part who has power and who does not, whose ideas are influential and whose marginal, whose interests are salient and whose negligible.

In politics, we’re never in Holmes’s theater, enjoying the show until someone comes along and ruins the evening.

Or maybe we are.

On Christmas Eve in 1913, the Ladies Auxiliary of the Western Federation of Miners local in Calumet, Michigan, held a party for the children of copper miners who had been on strike against their employer, the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company, since July. About 500 children and 175 adults packed the second-floor auditorium of the Italian Hall in Red Jacket, a small mining town on the Keweenaw Peninsula, which juts out onto Lake Superior.  The miners were mostly immigrants from the peripheries of Europe—Finland, Italy, and the Balkans—but their children were one in their quest for the nuts, candy, and presents from Santa that the Ladies Auxiliary had provided.

As the children lined up in the front of the large room, someone shouted “Fire.”  Nobody smelled smoke or saw flames, but the panicked children and adults rushed to the main exit at the back of the hall.  They raced down the stairway, a few stumbled on the steep steps, others piled on top of them, and still others, unable to stop the onrush behind them, piled on top of the pile.

The stampede was over in minutes.  The tangle of bodies in the stairway was so dense that rescuers out on the street could not pull any victims out from the bottom.  They had to go through the hall and lift them from the top.  Seventy-four people died, most of them children, some still clutching their Christmas presents.

To this day, no one knows who, if anyone, shouted fire.  One possible explanation is that a child had fainted and that someone cried for water.  Water—or its Finnish equivalent vettä—sounds like watra, which means fire in Serbo-Croatian.  Many witnesses, however, claim that they saw a man with a Citizens’ Alliance—a local anti-union group of businessmen—button on his lapel enter the hall, shout “fire,” and run down the stairs. To their dying day, survivors claimed that the stampede was the work of a company man.

That was the version of the story that Woodie Guthrie immortalized in his 1939 ballad “The 1913 Massacre”:

The copper-boss thugs stuck their heads in the door

One of them yelled and he screamed, ‘There’s a fire!’

A lady, she hollered, ‘There’s no such a thing!

Keep on with your party, there’s no such a thing.’

A few people rushed, and it was only a few

‘It’s only the thugs and the scabs fooling you.’

A man grabbed his daughter and carried her down

But the thugs held the door and he could not get out.

And then others followed, a hundred ore more

But most everybody remained on the floor.

The gun-thugs they laughed at their murderous joke,

While the children were smothered on the stair by the door.

 

And it might well have been the version Holmes would have read about.  The Calumet fire was widely reported throughout the country—Congress held hearings about it and the copper strike in 1914—and Holmes was an avid reader of newspapers.  He also loved the theater and had a passion for fires.  He told a friend “that whenever there was a fire in any direction he would be glad to go to it with me even if he had to be routed of bed.”  His friend added that “it would not have surprised me had he left the Bench to witness a fire while the Court was in session.”

We’ll never know for sure if Holmes knew about the Calumet tragedy and whether it inspired his metaphor, though University of Texas legal scholar Lucas Powe has made a strong case for that claim.

Yet even in Calumet, in a crowded hall on Christmas Eve with children unwrapping their presents in peacetime, the metaphor fails.  The strikers in the Italian Hall and their families were united, but what brought them together was a bitter standoff with Calumet and Hecla about wages, safety in the mines, the introduction of new machinery, the pace of work, and, most of all, whether the workers would have a union or not.

For decades, Alexander Agassiz, the Boston Brahmin who ran the company, had refused to negotiate with the miners, declaring in 1874, “We cannot be dictated to by anyone….Wages will be raised whenever we see fit and at no other time.”  Forty years later, Calumet and Hecla was still refusing to negotiate:  as the chair of a congressional committee said, “There is little we can do to end the strike.  The operators will not employ a single union man.  The remaining strikers can go back to work if they surrender their union cards, otherwise they will be compelled to some other part of the country to earn a livelihood.”

Set aside the controversy about whether or not there was a shout of fire and who the shouter was (though the fact that there was a controversy indicates how difficult it is to apply Holmes’s metaphor—in which there is not supposed to be any controversy—to politics).  If there was a shout of fire, and if the shouter was indeed a member of the Citizens’ Alliance, he would hardly have been the universal enemy of Holmes’s metaphor; he would have been more like John Brown, a terrorist to some, a hero to others.

Rather than unite a divided Keweenaw Peninsula, the tragedy at the Italian Hall divided it even further.  After the stampede, the wives of the Citizens’ Alliance went house to house to dispense to the survivors the $25,000 the anti-union group had raised; doors were slammed in their faces.  “The Western Federation of Miners will bury its own dead,” declared union president Charles Moyer, who had been in the region since September to monitor the strike’s progress.  “The American labor movement will take care of the relatives of the deceased.  No aid will be accepted from any of these citizens who a short time ago denounced these people as undesirable citizens.”

On December 26, a group of fifteen men burst into Moyer’s hotel room.  The men “piled on me like a pack of wolves,” he later testified, “kicking and striking and cursing.”  A revolver accidentally went off, hitting Moyer in the back and shoulder.  The men grabbed Moyer and another union official, dragged them through town to the railroad station, put them on board a train for Chicago, and warned Moyer “if you ever come back to this district again we will hang you.”

The following day, local authorities arrested the editor and several employees of the local radical Finnish newspaper Tyomies, which first publicized the accusation that the Citizens’ Alliance had caused the stampede, and charged them with “conspiracy to publish mis-statements calculated to incite riot.”  Two weeks later, on January 15, 1914, the Houghton County Grand Jury indicted Moyer and 37 other unionists for participating in a conspiracy that “instituted a general strike…with the purpose and intent of causing and compelling the employees of the companies…to cease work and to shut down and prevent the operation of the mines.”  Nine days after that, the same grand jury refused to indict Moyer’s attackers.

Holmes’s metaphor was supposed to illustrate the unity of society in the face of an alien danger and the right of the government, grounded in neutral and universal principles, to suppress that danger. But Calumet, like Schenck, reveals the opposite:  a society divided—not just in the face of danger but over the face of danger—and a government selectively deciding whom to protect and from what to protect them.

While Holmes’s metaphor obfuscates the realities of Calumet and Schenck, it also reveals a deeper nexus between them.  Why, after all, might Holmes have remembered and reached back to an incident from the nation’s bitter labor history to describe an equally bitter conflict over war and peace?

Perhaps it is because there is an intimate connection between public safety and private authority.  A safe and secure nation, many believe, is publicly united—and privately obedient.  Workers submit to employers, wives to husbands, slaves to masters, the powerless to the powerful.  A safe and secure nation is built on these ladders of obedience, in its families, factories, and fields.  Shake those ladders and you threaten the nation.  Stop people from shaking them and you protect it.

In Billy Budd, Herman Melville tells the story of the Bellipotent, a British naval ship on her way to the Mediterranean to fight the French.  The year is 1797, and the French enemy is in possession of—or possessed by—a revolutionary ideology of freedom and equality.  The British navy is writhing with discontent, most notably over the impressments of its sailors.  Thanks to the “live cinders blown across the Channel” from revolutionary France, writes Melville, that discontent has “been ignited into irrational combustion.”  Mutiny, and the threat of mutiny, is everywhere.  One in particular, the Nore Mutiny of May 1797, is “a demonstration more menacing to England than the contemporary manifestoes and conquering and proselyting armies of the French Directory.”

Disorder at home and danger abroad, domestic obedience and international security, safety and submission, insecurity and revolt—all are seamlessly intertwined in this tale about the British navy during the French Revolution that is also a tale about the American struggle over slavery and perhaps about the labor movement as well. (Melville began Billy Budd in 1886, nine years after the Great Upheaval.  1886 saw a massive strike wave—1400 strikes—that culminated in the Haymarket tragedy.  Melville was still working on Billy Budd in 1891, when he died, just one year shy of the showdown at Homestead.)

Like the plantation and the factory, the navy, in Melville’s telling, is a labor-intensive operation:  the “innumerable sails and thousands of cannon” of the ship “worked by muscle alone.”  Like the Nore Mutiny, slave rebellions throughout the Americas were sparked by the French Revolution, an influence Melville took up more directly in Benito Cereno.  And like the rhetoricians of both slavery and abolition, Melville resorted to the language of fire to describe the all-encompassing threat of a conflict over power and authority: the Nore Mutiny was to the British Empire, he wrote, “what a strike in the fire brigade would be to London threatened by general arson.”

“Men feared witches and burned women,” wrote Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California.  That’s true, but men also feared women and burned witches.  It is that traffic—between the uppity and the unsafe, the insurgent and the insecure, the immoral and the dangerous—and the alchemy by which a challenge to a particular social order becomes a general threat to the whole, that is the real story of how a fire in a theater, which may or may not have happened in the way various men and women think it happened, became a national obsession and an emblem of our constitutional faith.

Bibliography

William Beck, “Law and Order During the 1913 Copper Strike.” Michigan History LIV (Winter 1970).

Jeremy Brecher, Strike! Cambridge: South End Press, 1997.

Michael Kent Curtis, Free Speech, “The People’s Darling Privilege”:  Struggles for Freedom of Expression in American History. Durham:  Duke University Press, 2000.

The Finnish Experience in the Western Great Lakes Region:  New Perspectives, ed. Michael G. Karni, Matti E. Kaups, and Douglas J. Ollila, Jr. Turku, Finland:  Institute for Migration, 1975.

William B. Gates, Jr., Michigan Cooper and Boston Dollars:  An Economic History of the Michigan Cooper Industry. Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1951.

House of Representatives Subcommittee of the Committee on Mines and Mining, Hearings on “Conditions in the Copper Mines of Michigan,” 63rd Congress, 2nd session (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1914).

Michael H. Hunt, Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy. New Haven:  Yale University, 1987.

Vernon H. Jensen, Heritage of Conflict:  Labor Relations in the Nonferrous Metals Industry Up to 1930. New York:  Greenwood, 1968.

Larry Lankton, Cradle to Grave:  Life, Work, and Death at the Lake Superior Copper Mines. New York:  Oxford University Press, 1991.

Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor, in Melville’s Short Novels, ed. Dan McCall. New York:  Norton, 2002.

Stephen H. Norwood, Strike-breaking & Intimidation:  Mercenaries and Masculinity in Twentieth-Century America. Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

H.C. Peterson and Gilbert C. Fite, Opponents of War, 1917-1918. Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 1957.

Richard Polenberg, Fighting Faiths:  The Abrams Case, the Supreme Court, and Free Speech. New York:  Viking, 1987.

L.A. Powe, Jr., “Searching for the False Shout of ‘Fire.’” Constitutional Commentary 19 (Summer 2002).

David M. Rabban, Free Speech in Its Forgotten Years. New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Yosal Rogat and James O’Fallon, “Mr. Justice Holmes:  A Dissenting Opinion—The Speech Cases.” Stanford Law Review 36 (July 1984).

Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919)

Arthur W. Thurner, Rebels on the Range:  The Michigan Copper Miners’ Strike of 1913-1914. Lake Linden, Michigan:  John H. Forster Press, 1984.

Peter Trubowitz, Defining the National Interest:  Conflict and Change in American Foreign Policy. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927)

Birth Control McCarthyism

14 Mar

Climbing aboard the anti-birth control bandwagon, the Arizona Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-2 on Monday to endorse legislation that would: a) give employers the right to deny health insurance coverage to their employees for religious reasons; b) give employers the right to ask their employees whether their birth control prescriptions are for contraception or other purposes (hormone control, for example, or acne treatment).

There are three things to say about this legislation.

The Private Life of Power

First, as I argue in The Reactionary Mind, conservatism is dedicated to defending hierarchies of power against democratic movements from below, particularly in the so-called private spheres of the family and the workplace. Conservatism is a defense of what I call “the private life of power.” Less a protection of privacy or property in the abstract, as many conservatives and libertarians like to claim, conservatism is a defense of the rights of bosses and husbands/fathers.

So it’s no surprise, as I noted in the conclusion of The Reactionary Mind, that the chief agenda items of the GOP since its string of Tea Party victories in 2010 have been to roll back the rights of workers—not just in the public sector, as this piece by Gordon Lafer makes clear, but also in the private sector—and to roll back the reproductive rights of women, as this chart, which Mike Konczal discusses, makes clear. Often, it’s the same Tea Party-controlled states that are pushing both agendas at the same time.

What I hadn’t predicted was that the GOP would be able to come up with a program—in the form of this anti-birth control employer legislation we’re now seeing everywhere—that would combine both agenda items at the same time.

Fear, American Style

Second, in a way, I should have foreseen this fusion because, as I argued in my first book Fear: The History of a Political Idea, in the United States, it has historically fallen to employers rather than the state to police the political opinions and practices of citizens. Focused as we are on the state, we often miss the fact that some of the most intense programs of political indoctrination have not been conducted by the government but have instead been outsourced to the private sector. While less than 200 men and women went to jail for their political beliefs during the McCarthy years, as many as 2 out of every 5 American workers were monitored for their political beliefs.

I’ve spoken about this issue on this blog before—my apologies to the old timers here; unfortunately, this point can’t be repeated enough—but recall this fascinating exchange between an American physician and Tocqueville during the  latter’s travels to the United States in the early 1830s. Passing through Baltimore, Tocqueville asked the doctor why so many Americans pretended they were religious when they obviously had “numerous doubts on the subject of dogma.” The doctor replied that the clergy had a lot of power in America, as in Europe. But where the European clergy often acted through or with the help of the state, their American counterparts worked through the making and breaking of private careers.

If a minister, known for his piety, should declare that in his opinion a certain man was an unbeliever, the man’s career would almost certainly be broken. Another example: A doctor is skilful, but has no faith in the Christian religion. However, thanks to his abilities, he obtains a fine practice. No sooner is he introduced into the house than a zealous Christian, a minister or someone else, comes to see the father of the house and says: look out for this man. He will perhaps cure your children, but he will seduce your daughters, or your wife, he is an unbeliever. There, on the other hand, is Mr. So-and-So. As good a doctor as this man, he is at the same time religious. Believe me, trust the health of your family to him. Such counsel is almost always followed.

While all of us rightly value the Bill of Rights, it’s important to note that these amendments are limitations on government action. As a result, the tasks of political repression and coercion can often be—and are—simply outsourced to the private sector. As I wrote in Fear:

There is little mystery as to why civil society can serve as a substitute or supplement to state repression. Civil society is not, on the whole, subject to restrictions like the Bill of Rights. So what the state is forbidden to do, private actors in civil society may execute instead. “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation,” Justice Jackson famously declared, “it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” But what star in our constitutional constellation forbids newspapers like the New York Times, which refused during the McCarthy years to hire members of the Communist Party, from prescribing such orthodoxy as a condition of employment? What in the Constitution would stop a publisher from telling poet Langston Hughes that it would not issue his Famous Negro Music Makers unless he removed any discussion of Communist singer Paul Robeson? Or stop Little, Brown from refusing to publish best-selling Communist author Howard Fast?

The Sixth Amendment guarantees “in all criminal prosecutions” that the accused shall “have the assistance of counsel for his defence.” But what in the Constitution would prevent attorney Abe Fortas, who would later serve on the Supreme Court, from refusing to represent a party member during the McCarthy years because, in his words, “We have decided that we don’t think we can ever afford to represent anybody that has ever been a Communist?”

The Fifth Amendment stipulates that the government cannot compel an individual to incriminate herself, but it does not forbid private employers from firing anyone invoking its protections before congressional committees. To the extent that our Constitution works against an intrusive state, how can it even authorize the government to regulate these private decisions of civil society? What the liberal state granteth, then, liberal civil society taketh away.

Let’s come back now to the birth control employer question. Thanks to the gains of the feminist movement and Griswold v. Connecticut, we now understand the Constitution to prohibit the government from imposing restrictions on access to birth control. Even most Republicans, I think, accept that. But there’s nothing in the Constitution to stop employers from refusing to provide health insurance coverage for birth control to their employees.

And here’s where the McCarthy specter becomes particularly troubling. Notice the second provision of the Arizona legislation: employers will now have the right to question their employees about what they plan to do with their birth-control prescriptions. Not only is this a violation of the right to privacy—again, not a right our Constitution currently recognizes in the workplace—but it obviously can give employers the necessary information they need to fire an employee.  If a women admits to using contraception in order to not get pregnant, there’s nothing in the Constitution to stop an anti-birth control employer from firing her.

During the McCarthy years, here were some of the questions employers asked their employees: What is your opinion of the Marshall Plan? What do you think about Nato? The Korean War? Reconciliation with the Soviet Union? These questions were directly related to US foreign policy, the assumption being that Communist Party members or sympathizers would offer pro-Soviet answers to them (i.e., against Nato and the Korean War). But many of the questions were more domestic in nature: What do you think of civil rights? Do you own Paul Robeson records? What do you think about segregating the Red Cross blood supply? The Communist Party had taken strong positions on civil rights, including desegregating the Red Cross blood supply, and as one questioner put it, “The fact that a person believes in racial equality doesn’t prove that he’s a Communist, but it certainly makes you look twice, doesn’t it? You can’t get away from the fact that racial equality is part of the Communist line.” (Though Ellen Schrecker, from whose book Many Are the Crimes I have taken these examples, points out that many of these questions were posed by government loyalty boards, she also notes that the questions posed by private employers were virtually identical.) The upshot, of course, was that support for civil rights came to be viewed as a Communist position, making public support for civil rights a riskier proposition than it already was.

It’s unclear what the future of Birth Control McCarthyism will be, but anyone who thinks the repressive implications of these bills can be simply brushed aside with vague feints to the religious freedoms of employers—more on this in a moment—is overlooking the long and sordid history of Fear, American Style. Private employers punishing their employees for holding disfavored views or engaging in disapproved practices (disapproved by the employer, that is) is the way a lot of repression happens in this country. And it can have toxic effects, as Liza Love, a witness before the Arizona Senate committee, testified:

“I wouldn’t mind showing my employer my medical records,” Love said. “But there are 10 women behind me that would be ashamed to do so.”

In the debate over the legislation, Arizona Republican Majority Whip Debbie Lesko (also the bill’s author) said, “I believe we live in America. We don’t live in the  Soviet Union.” She’s right, though perhaps not in the way she intended: unlike in the Soviet Union, the government here may not be able to punish you simply for holding unorthodox views or engaging in disfavored practices (though the government can certainly find other ways to harass or penalize you, if it wishes). What happens instead is that your employer will do it for the government (or for him or herself). As the president of Barnard College put it during the McCarthy years, “If the colleges take the responsibility to do their own house cleaning, Congress would not feel it has to investigate.”

Whose Freedom?

Third, the standard line from Republicans and some libertarians is that requiring religious or religion-related employers (like the hospitals and universities that are funded by the Catholic Church) to provide health insurance coverage for their employees’ birth control is a violation of their First Amendment rights to religious freedom. The same arguments have come up in Arizona. Just after she made the comparison above between the United States and the Soviet Union, Lesko added:

“So, government should not be telling the organizations or mom and pop employers to do something against their moral beliefs.”

“My whole legislation is about our First Amendment rights and freedom of religion,” Lesko said. “All my bill does is that an employer can opt out of the mandate if they have any religious objections.”

Father John Muir, a priest at the All Saints Catholic Newman Center on the Tempe campus, said the controversial issue is not about birth control, but religious freedom and the First Amendment.

“It’s not about birth control,” Muir said. “It’s about the right to live out your beliefs and principles without inference by the state.”

There are many reasons to be wary of this line of argument, which I won’t get into here. Instead, I’d like to recall some more history.

It’s often forgotten that one of the main catalysts for the rise of the Christian Right was not school prayer or abortion but the defense of Southern private schools that were created in response to desegregation. By 1970, 400,000 white children were attending these “segregation academies.” States like Mississippi gave students tuition grants, and until the Nixon administration overturned the practice, the IRS gave the donors to these schools tax exemptions. And it was none other than Richard Viguerie, founder of the New Right and pioneer of its use of direct-mail tactics, who said that the attack on these public subsidies by the Civil Rights Movement and liberal courts “was the spark that ignited the religious right’s involvement in real politics.”

According to historian Joseph Crespino, whose essay “Civil Rights and the Religious Right” in Rightward Bound:Making American Conservative in the 1970s is must reading, the rise of segregation academies “was often timed exactly with the desegregation of formerly all-white public schools.” Even so, their advocates claimed to be defending religious minorities—and religious beliefs—rather than white supremacy. (Initially nonsectarian, most of these schools became evangelical over time.) Their cause, in other words, was freedom, not inequality—not the freedom of whites to associate with other whites (and thereby lord their status and power over blacks), as the previous generation of massive resisters had foolishly and openly admitted, but the freedom of believers to practice their own embattled religion. It was a shrewd transposition. In one fell swoop, the heirs of slaveholders became the descendants of persecuted Baptists, and Jim Crow a heresy the First Amendment was meant to protect.

So it is today. Rather than openly pursue their agenda of restricting the rights of women, the GOP claims to be defending the rights of religious dissenters. Instead of powerful employers—for that is what many of these Catholic hospitals and universities are—we have persecuted sects.

Knowing the history of the rise of the Christian Right doesn’t resolve this debate, but it certainly does make you look twice, doesn’t it?

Update (March 15, 4:30 pm)

This post got cross-posted at Salon; check out the comments there. In a very smart piece, also at Salon, Irin Carmon looks at the evolution (and continuities) of the GOP position on this issue. Also check out this excellent piece by Sarah Posner, again at Salon, which looks at the contributions of the Democrats to this morass we’re in.

Also, on the question of whether the Arizona law allows employers to fire employees on the basis of whether they use birth control for contraception purposes or not, check out this.

Ron Paul has two problems: one is his, the other is ours.

3 Jan

Ron Paul has two problems.  One is his and the larger conservative movement of which he is a part.  The other is ours—by which I mean a left that is committed to both economic democracy and anti-imperialism.

Ron Paul’s problem is not merely the racist newsletters, the close ties with Lew Rockwell, his views on abortion, or even his stance on the 1964 Civil Rights Act—though these automatically disqualify him from my support.  His real problem is his fundamentalist commitment to federalism, which would make any notion of human progress in this country impossible.

Federalism has a long and problematic history in this country—it lies at the core of the maintenance of slavery and white supremacy; it was consistently invoked as the basis for opposition to the welfare state; it has been, contrary to many of its defenders, one of the cornerstones of some of the most repressive moments in our nation’s history[pdf]—and though liberals used to be clear about its regressive tendencies, they’ve grown soft on it in recent years.  As the liberal Yale constitutional law scholar Akhil Reed Amar put it not so long ago:

Once again, populism and federalism—liberty and localism—work together; We the People conquer government power by dividing it between the two rival governments, state and federal.

As I’ve argued repeatedly on this blog and elsewhere, the path forward for the left lies in the alliance between active social movements on the ground and a strong national state.  There is simply no other way, at least not that I  am aware of, to break the back of the private autocracies that oppress us all.

Even people, no, especially people who focus on Paul’s position on the drug war should think about the perils of his federalism. There are 2 million people in prison in this country. At most 10 percent of them are in federal prisons; the rest are in state and local prisons. If Paul ended the drug war, maybe 1/2 of those in federal prison would be released. Definitely a step, but it has to be weighed against his radical embrace of whatever it is that states and local governments do.

Paul is a distinctively American type of libertarian: one that doesn’t have a critique of the state so much as a critique of the federal government. That’s a very different kettle of fish. I think libertarianism is problematic enough—in that it ignores the whole realm of social domination (or thinks that realm is entirely dependent upon or a function of the existence of the state or thinks that it can be remedied by the persuasive and individual actions of a few good souls)—but a states-rights-based libertarianism is a social disaster.

So that’s his problem.

Our problem—and again by “our” I mean a left that’s social democratic (or welfare state liberal or economically progressive or whatever the hell you want to call it) and anti-imperial—is that we don’t really have a vigorous national spokesperson for the issues of war and peace, an end to empire, a challenge to Israel, and so forth, that Paul has in fact been articulating.  The source of Paul’s positions on these issues are not the same as ours (again more reason not to give him our support).  But he is talking about these issues, often in surprisingly blunt and challenging terms. Would that we had someone on our side who could make the case against an American empire, or American supremacy, in such a pungent way.

This, it’s clear, is why people like Glenn Greenwald say that Paul’s voice needs to be heard.  Not, Greenwald makes clear, because he supports Paul, but because it is a terrible comment—a shanda for the left—that we don’t have anyone on our side of comparable visibility launching an attack on American imperialism and warfare. (Recalling what I said in the context of the death of Christopher Hitchens, I suspect this has something to do with our normalization and acceptance of war as a way of life.) In other words, we need to listen to Paul, not because he’s worthy of our support, and certainly not because the reasons that underlie his positions on foreign policy are ours, but because he reveals what’s not being said, or not being said enough, on our side.

There is a long history in this country of the left not paying too much attention to the ways in which our leaders do things that set the stage for worse things to come.  J. Edgar Hoover got a tremendous amount of traction under FDR and the New Deal because he was perceived to be a spit-and-polish, professional crime fighter.  So trusted and hailed was he by liberals and progressives—when he worked for their leaders—that it was none other than Arthur Schlesinger, in The Vital Center (1949), who urged Americans to put their trust in Hoover rather than in the Red hunters of the far right:

All Americans must bear in mind J. Edgar Hoover’s warning that counter-espionage is no field for amateurs. We need the best professional counterespionage agency we can get to protect our national security.

In 1950, William Keller reports in his essential The Liberals and J. Edgar Hoover, while Truman was still president, Hubert Humphrey took to the floor of the Senate to declare:

If the FBI does not have enough trained manpower to do this job, then, for goodness sake, let us give the FBI the necessary funds for recruiting the manpower it needs….This is a job that must be done by experts.

Yet, as Ellen Schrecker rightly argued in Many Are the Crimes, her definitive account of McCarthyism:

Had observers known in the 1950s what they have learned since the 1970s, when the Freedom of Information Act opened the Bureau’s files, “McCarthyism” would probably be called “Hooverism.” For the FBI was the bureaucratic heart of the McCarthy era.

In the last week, liberals and progressives have been arguing about these issues; Digby has been especially cogent and worth listening to. The only thing I have to add to that debate is this: both sides are right. Not in a the-truth-lies-somewhere-in-between sort of way. Nor in a can’t-we-all-get-along sort of way.  No, both sides are right in the sense that I laid out above: Ron Paul is unacceptable, and it’s unacceptable that we don’t have someone on the left who is raising the issues of imperialism, war and peace, and civil liberties in as visible and forceful a way.

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